Learning the ABCs of Corporate Contracts

Kristine Jones, who provides "flaggers" to manage traffic at work sites, figured out a way to land big utility companies as clients.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

For Kristine Jones, winning corporate contracts has been game-changing.

In 2008, on a whim, the former preschool teacher started New England Flagger Services in Windham, Conn., providing certified “flaggers” to manage traffic at work sites throughout the state. “I didn’t have a lot of experience,” she said. “I had to fly by the seat of my pants and learn.”

The first year, Jones stayed afloat by doing work for a tree-trimming company and hiring the children of friends as flaggers. But she struggled to pay the bills, and she learned that to be financially viable, she would need to land contracts with big utility companies that often need flaggers for projects like fixing water main breaks or maintaining gas and power lines.

The trouble was, she didn’t have any experience or connections as a contractor. And the economy had deteriorated and most potential clients — such as Northeast Utilities, New England’s largest utility system — already had multi-year contracts with other vendors. The worst year was 2009, Jones said, adding that she remembers questioning whether she should stay in business: “I really was seriously thinking, ‘Should I go back into teaching?’”

But then the economy picked up, Jones won a few more small customers, and she got serious about competing for corporate clients, including learning the alphabet soup of contracting. “I didn’t even know what an R.F.P. was,” she said, referring to “request for proposal,” a document that organizations use to solicit bids from potential vendors. “Learning all the acronyms was really difficult.”

In fact, a mistake over the unfamiliar jargon led to Jones’ first big contract. During her second year in business, she targeted a paving company. “I presented myself and said, ‘My company’s the best and so I want you to hire me,’” she said. “They said to me, ‘You need something called a D.B.E. certification.’”

D.B.E. stands for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, a designation that socially or economically disadvantaged businesses can receive through the Connecticut Department of Transportation. (Jones’ company qualifies because it is woman-owned.)

Jones went home and checked the Internet. “This is how naïve I was,” she said. “I start Googling and W.B.E. comes up.” This designation stands for Women Business Enterprise, a different designation that one can receive through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, a third-party certifier of women-owned businesses. Jones went through the process and obtained her W.B.E. certification, which she said took about a year.

And then she went back to the paving company. “So the person in the office calls me back and says, ‘I still don’t see you in the system. Are you sure you have a D.B.E.?’’” That’s when Jones realized – in a slap-the-forehead moment – that she had obtained the wrong certification.

As fate would have it, however, the W.B.E. certification paid off. She was soon contacted by Connecticut Natural Gas, a regional utility that needed flaggers and had spotted New England Flagger on a database of W.B.E.-certified firShe won her first contract – a relatively small one for two years – but she said it stabilized her company and put her in a position to grow.

By 2012, the multi-year contracts with the big utilities were up for renewal, and Jones said she put everything she had into landing one with Northeast Utilities.

First, she registered her company online with Northeast Utilities’s supplier diversity program. In addition, she needed to show, through documentation, that her company trains it flaggers through an Occupational Safety and Health Administration program.

She also found she needed to be aggressive. “Once I started submitting my things electronically, I would call and say – probably for the 10th time – ‘just wanted to make sure you received this,’” she said. “I was in their face, all the time.”

The persistence paid off. In 2012, she won a three-year contract with Northeast Utilities, plus contracts with Yankee Gas, Southern Connecticut Gas, United Illuminating and other private companies. In the space of a few weeks, she said, New England Flagger went from about seven employees to 70. Revenue increased from about $100,000 a year to $1.6 million by the end of 2013.

Jones, who began paying herself a salary in 2012, said her company now sends its flaggers to about 30 sites a day. A new growth area is subcontracting, where smaller outfits (say, a pole-removing company) who have contracts with the big utilities also use her flaggers, she said.

Jones said she is glad she didn’t return to teaching during the rough early years. “Sometimes it’s easy to fall back on something that’s comfortable,” she said. “You have to ride the bumps.”

Related: Getting Federal Contracts Into Women’s Hands

Posted: September 8, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseLearning the ABCs of Corporate Contracts